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Transforming an Edwardian hospital site to revive a dying rural community



Built and maintained by the community since the end of the 19th century, Southwold Hospital was closed by the NHS in 2015. Residents and local businesses from the rural Suffolk towns of Southwold and Reydon, and neighbouring parishes, banded together to prevent the site being turned into second-homes, and instead be run for the benefit of the community.

They set up a community benefit society known as Southwold and Waveney Valley Regeneration Society Ltd to raise funds to save the hospital and plan its future. By 2018, they had succeeded in getting the hospital into community hands, the first time in England and Wales that a community group has bought back a hospital for new community use. Now, a £206,000 grant from Power to Change through the Community Business Fund will support them to develop the site and create community businesses for ‘Makers, Shakers and Bakers’, creating affordable spaces for the whole community to work, learn and socialise. They also ran a successful community share offer in 2019, raising £397,825 with 446 investors in 38 days including a matched equity investment of  £100,000 from Power to Change’s Community Shares Booster Programme. They deliberately kept share prices low, with each share costing £25, to make them affordable for all residents.

Tackling local need

Situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty along the Suffolk coast, the towns of Southwold and Reydon are popular for retirees and 60% of Southwold’s housing stock is second-homes. Unfortunately, like many rural, coastal towns, this has driven up house prices so much that many local people have been priced out of the town centres. Empty second-homes and the loss of community facilities are also eroding community ties and a lack of employment opportunities is leading to a ‘brain-drain’, with young professionals moving out of the area. The hospital redevelopment will address these pressing needs with four community businesses, based on community consultations, that will improve the area for everyone.

SouthGen will create a farm-to-fork café and training space to support artisan producers, a tech hub, a creche, a library and affordable housing. These community businesses will enable training courses in catering, artisan production, food growing, crafting and furniture restoration, providing opportunities for young people and attracting new families into the area. This will help revive the local economy, with the creation of new employment opportunities and workspace, and a strengthened local supply chain.

How did they do it?

First the community conducted a six month feasibility study to ask local people what they wanted on the site. Then they found a development partner, Hastoe Housing Association, to help them purchase the site and create their vision.

The NHS wasn’t initially keen to sell the site to them so SouthGen requested the site be listed as an Asset of Community Value. This was appealed by the NHS but the community made a strong enough case, showing that the community has been involved in funding and supporting the running of the hospital since Edwardian times. The hospital was then listed as an Asset of Community Value (you can find out what is listed near you, or request a building to be listed on, and the group was able to use the Community Right to Bid.

The group then got an architect to develop a green masterplan and prepare their planning application. Now, Hastoe is converting two thirds of the site into affordable housing and one third is being redeveloped by SouthGen.

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